By Danny Schrafel
The Pine Tree Inn, the low-key bar and Italian restaurant known by many as Huntington Station’s embodiment of “Cheers,” closed its doors for the last time Monday, and with it, closed the book on a chapter of Huntington Station’s history as well.
It’s fitting that owner Charlie O’Keefe rang the bell at the bar during a farewell party Saturday and saluted his steadfast patrons by playing for them the “Cheers” theme – “Where Everybody Knows Your Name.”
In days gone by, if you were in the mood for pizza in Huntington Station, there were three main destinations: Broncotto’s near Walt Whitman High School, J&J Southside Restaurant on Route 110 and the Pine Tree Inn, at 16 West Jericho Turnpike.
Over the years, the “big three” drifted away into the sands of time and changing tastes – Broncotto’s first, then J&J Southside about 10 years ago. All the time, the Pine Tree Inn was a “quiet giant,” O’Keefe said.
On Monday, though, the quiet giant, the last of the Huntington Station mainstays, made its last call, 58 years after opening its doors. A Corona, Queens-based Cuban restaurant, Rincon Criollo, is poised to take the space.
“For this to be gone is going to be devastating for so many people,” patron Patty Albin, a Huntington Station native, said between snapping photos during the farewell celebration Saturday. “It’s a landmark.”
O’Keefe said he made the announcement before Christmas that the Pine Tree Inn would be closing. What followed was a “tremendous outpouring of people” to bid farewell with a cocktail and a meal.
By Saturday, much of the restaurant’s food stock had been depleted but for a buffet of veggie burgers, lasagna and baked ziti. Sunday was the annual Super Bowl party, and Monday was planned to be last call at the bar.
O’Keefe isn’t retiring, but will take some time off before charting his next move, he said.
“I thought it was time for me to make a change,” he said. “Business has been very good. We’ve been very successful over the years. We’ve had extremely loyal customers.”
He credits that success to an unpretentious atmosphere, good old-fashioned Italian cooking and a price that couldn’t be beat. His was one of the first restaurants to bring the “bar pie” – old-fashioned, small, thin crust pizza – to Long Island.
“The bar pies were the best here,” longtime customer Faith DeDora said. “You’re never going to get them anywhere else.”
Loyalty to the Pine Tree Inn runs in families, it turns out. Ask Huntington Station’s Al O’Donnell – his grandfather, Pat, began the tradition in his family. Al drove in from Vermont to bid farewell; he wouldn’t have dared missing it. His brother, Chris, would have been there, too, Saturday, if he wasn’t in the hospital.
“The people behind the place, from the people behind the bar to the owner – it’s always been family,” O’Donnell said. “Very tight – it’s like coming home.”
There’s great loyalty to the Pine Tree Inn professionally, too. O’Keefe was the owner for 33 years and was the third of four generations to work in the family business. His grandfather Edward Pratt and mother Margery O’Keefe launched the business back in ’56, and a fourth generation of O’Keefes, Charlie’s son, Brian, recently joined the business. Some staff members have been in his employ for two decades or more, like bartender Gary Tarlov, who left right before the holidays after 20 years behind the bar.
“It’s sad,” he said. “There’s no other word for it… It’s a fixture in Huntington.”
The outpouring of support, O’Keefe said, has been overwhelming.
“It’s amazing. It’s been tremendous,” the owner said. “I’ve had men and women come to me, crying about closing and giving me the memories.”
Memories of love connections, good times with friends and hearty meals, now relegated to fond, sentimental thoughts.
“The most important [thing] is that we treated people with respect,” O’Keefe said. “That’s something my mother taught me a long time ago.”